by Charles Soule
My novelThe Oracle Year, just out this April from Harper Perennial, is one of those books in which the story is told through multiple POVs. Each chapter shifts the eyes and mind through which we’re experiencing the story, and while we do keep circling back to a few main characters, I’d say there are still maybe 10 different points of view. (Now I’m running through them in my head, counting them up. Yeah, at least 10.)
I didn’t invent this technique—it’s been around since the dawn of literature, and more recently, George R.R. Martin uses it with great success in his Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. (for you TV watchers) Game of Thrones. Fantasy and sci-fi novels use it often, but it’s out there in every genre—Stephen King’s The Stand is a great example, or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, and lots of others.
I like it, personally, because it keeps things interesting from a writing perspective. It’s challenging enough to get one character’s perspective right—doing it with 10 puts it on a whole new level. I also enjoy the technique because it lets you cheat, in a way. You can zip around to new settings, cut away from scenes, leave cliffhangers unresolved for longer in ways that don’t work as well if you’re following one character’s perspective through the whole thing.
I particularly wanted to use multiple POVs in The Oracle Year because it’s a story with a global setting. The book looks at the way the world would react to the appearance of someone who could actually see the future, and who would make his predictions available… for a price. The story follows the reactions of people from all walks of life and all over the world, including the prophet himself, a pretty ordinary guy from New York City, a struggling musician in his late 20s named Will Dando.
By bouncing around from viewpoint to viewpoint, I could look at the story from the perspectives of people who were involved in, say, politics, or religion, or any number of social institutions flipped on their ear by the emergence of the Oracle.
So, that’s why I did it—but this piece is supposed to be about how I did it, and maybe how you might do it if you want to use this idea in your own stories.
Ask the right questions.
Using any character as your POV means you need to understand them inside and out in a way you don’t need to if they’re random side character number thirty-six. I think you start there. Each POV character should have a what, why and a how, at minimum:
- What do they want?
- Why do they want it?
- How are they trying to get it?
If you have those three questions answered, you have the start of someone who might be able to fuel a chapter’s POV. From there, think about their voice. Are they snarky? Funny? Sad? Mean? Angry? How do they see the world around them? What are they afraid of, worried about, excited by? Those things can be greatly helped by choosing POVs loosely based on people you might know in real life—I know I’ve done it—but that’s not strictly necessary, and part of the fun of writing is ‘becoming’ someone else as you write them.
Be wary of characters who are too similar to each other.
If you’re going to choose multiple POVs, there should be a reason for it. A chapter seen through the eyes of character A shouldn’t feel the same as a chapter seen through the eyes of character B, if you’ve built them right. Every POV character needs to be a person, fully and truly actualized within the story, and seeing the events through their particular eyes should help to develop your themes, bring you something new you can’t get with any of the other characters, or build your story in some other way. No two people on Earth see the world the same way; neither should your characters.
Creating multiple POVs isn’t an overnight thing. Finding the voice for characters can take a while, and can involve a lot of false starts and revision—but as they say, writing is rewriting.
It’s also reading. If you think you have a story that might benefit from multiple POVs, check out stories where it’s done well (I gave you a few examples above, but there are so many.)
Also keep in mind that not every book needs to do this—sometimes a deep dive from a single perspective is the way to go. Books that shift to a new character every chapter can ask a lot of your reader—it’s forcing them to create a new relationship with a character, or remember someone they might not have encountered for a while in the narrative. It’s ultimately a personal choice, and really relates to the story you think you want to tell.
It’s an extremely effective tool.The Oracle Year does it, the novel I wrote before that did it, and the one I’m working on now does it too.
That said, what works for me may not work for you, and you should absolutely “do you.” Good writing is often good because it’s personal in one way or another to the person writing it. With that in mind, I’ll end with what I what should probably be the first and last lesson of any writing tutorial: Find your own way forward. Find your own… point of view.
Charles Soule is a musician, attorney and theNew York Timesbestsellingauthor of numerous comics titles for Marvel, DC, Image and other publishers, with over 2.2 million individual comics sold in 2017 alone.He is best known for writingDaredevil,She-Hulk,Deat